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Councilmember Mike O'Brien speaks at last Monday's City Council meeting.
Councilmember Mike O’Brien speaks at last Monday’s City Council meeting.

Finally, after nearly a year-and-a-half of discussion, the Seattle City Council is set to vote on legislation Monday that will legalize transportation startups like UberX, Lyft and Sidecar.

Councilmembers plan to discuss and potentially vote to approve a revised ordinance that came out of a negotiation process organized by Mayor Ed Murray.

But given how drawn out and tumultuous this entire process has been, it’s wouldn’t be a surprise to see the council come away from Monday’s meeting without a resolution.

Even though Murray has asked the council to approve the new agreement that was reached last month, there are a few roadblocks that could prevent the San Francisco-based startups from operating in Seattle legally.

First, though, let’s quickly recap what has happened in the past 15 months.

uberxIt all started back in March 2013, when a council committee first began talking about how to regulate what it eventually labeled as Transportation Network Companies (TNCs) — businesses like UberX, Lyft, and Sidecar that use smartphone apps and allow everyday drivers to use their personal vehicles to transport people around town.

One year and 11 meetings later, the full council voted 9-0 to enact an ordinance that would have legalized the TNCs, but also limited the number of active drivers to 150 vehicles per company. Seattle was the first city to implement a limit of any kind and the reaction was passionate from both sides. Many felt that the City Council was limiting innovation with the 150-cap; others said that the startups need to follow the law and stop avoiding regulation.

The TNCs voiced their frustrations with the cap — in fact, no one was really happy with the new rules — and complained that the rule would have “crushed” them. They then proceeded to give large amounts of money to a coalition group that collected enough petition signatures to suspend the ordinance in April and put it up for public vote on a ballot later this year.

Seattle Mayor Ed Murray.
Seattle Mayor Ed Murray.

That’s when Murray stepped in and brought together stakeholders from all involved parties — the taxi industry, TNCs, city leaders — to work on a new deal. He voiced concern with the ordinance going to a public vote, noting that “a lot of people will spend a lot of money that could be spent better on their own businesses.”

After nearly two months of discussions, an agreement was reached in June that removed the 150-vehicle cap, established revised TNC insurance requirements, gave more rights to for-hire companies, and added 200 taxi licenses over the next four years.

With the new proposal on the table, the council last week voted 6-3 to repeal the original ordinance and effectively end the coalition’s effort to hold a public referendum on that legislation. The decision left almost everybody in attendance relatively happy and sets the stage to act on the new ordinance on Monday.

But as Crosscut outlines here, councilmember Mike O’Brien is already planning on introducing a motion that will send the revised ordinance back to the Committee on Taxi, For-Hire and Limousine Regulations for further inspection. O’Brien is mainly concerned with how the TNCs, which are outlawed in places like Portland and Austin mainly due to safety concerns, insure their drivers and passengers.

The insurance debate is raging on in other cities and states across the country and is mainly centered on when exactly TNC drivers are covered — from the moment they turn on the app, or when they are actually taking someone somewhere — and by whom (driver’s personal policy or that of the TNCs). Responding to pressure from city governments like Seattle, Lyft last week announced that it is now having its own insurance policy act as primary coverage — but only from when a driver accepts a ride until the ride ends.

Lyft supporters gather at a City Hall rally in February.
Lyft supporters gather at a City Hall rally in February.

It’s clear that O’Brien, and perhaps others on the council, want the TNCs to beef up their insurance policies even more so. But while O’Brien seems convinced that the agreement needs further analysis, how his fellow councilmembers will react on Monday is up in the air.

For example, Bruce Harrell has consistently voiced his support for a cap over the past year and seemed hesitant to allow the TNCs to operate without much regulation. But when given a chance to speak at last Monday’s meeting, Harrell simply took the notes of councilmember Sally Bagshaw — who minutes earlier indicated that she wanted to approve the legislation as soon as possible — and waved them in the air.

“What she said, I agree with,” Harrell said. “It’s as simple as that.”

But Monday’s meeting will be far from simple, as there are other issues to iron out as well. Taxi drivers have voiced concern with how the new ordinance no longer requires security cameras inside of their vehicles. Joe Blondo, a 26-year taxicab veteran of Seattle, told GeekWire that it’s “totally unreasonable” to remove a tool that can help save people’s lives.

Joe Blondo, a 26-year taxi veteran of Seattle.
Joe Blondo, a 26-year taxi veteran of Seattle.

“The cameras deter criminals and provide evidence,” Blondo said. “And as far as I know, we have a more dangerous job than police officers. This is why it’s so questionable that Mayor Murray is doing this while running a public safety campaign in Seattle. Everybody but the cab drivers, huh?”

Blondo is also frustrated with how the new agreement allows an unlimited amount of TNCs, while taxicab and for-hire vehicle licenses still remained capped. If the council accepts the revised ordinance, Blondo predicts that a majority of taxi drivers will lose their job.

“There will be a clearing out of taxi drivers,” said Blondo, who runs the Real Taxi Seattle blog. “They won’t be able to survive and will have to find something else to do.”

However, there is a chance that the council does not enact the new legislation on Monday — especially if O’Brien’s motion catches momentum. If that happens, the TNC-supported coalition — which has now raised more than $1 million from Uber and Lyft — has plans to submit more signatures for a new initiative that is similar to the existing agreement and would appear on the ballot later this year.

“We hope the council will act quickly in support of the new proposal so that an initiative won’t be necessary,” Brad Harwood, spokesperson for the coalition, told GeekWire last week.

We’ll be live-blogging the meeting on Monday at 2 p.m. at City Hall, so check back on GeekWire for that.

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